Congress is exploring the possibility of combining the federal government's food inspection functions within a single agency. The House Civil Service and Agency Organization Subcommittee recently held hearings in response to a General Accounting Office report that said "fundamental changes are needed in the food safety system."

The report concluded that the system is a "patchwork structure" that makes it difficult for government to adequately address risks. Under the current system, FDA and USDA have primary responsibility for food safety, with other agencies such as the Department of Commerce and the Border Patrol having jurisdiction as well.

Tougher rules for labs

FDA wants to tighten rules on private sampling services and laboratories that test imported food. The new regulations would require samples to be properly identified, collected and maintained and require private laboratories to use validated or recognized analytical methods. The proposed rule would also direct private laboratories to submit their results directly to FDA. Food importers would have to provide notice to FDA about the use of a sampling service or a private laboratory to sample and test food that is subject to an FDA enforcement action.